4 Stars. Trigger warnings for death of a loved one, racial violence, murder and gore, inappropriate relationships between an adult and a minor.
Holding on to her dark fantasy roots, Christina Henry delivers a brutal dose of nostalgia with her 1980s throw-back small town horror novel The Ghost Tree. Lauren is about to turn 15, and her life has been difficult lately. Her mom has been on her case about every little thing, her best friend Miranda is more interested in boys than hanging out at the Ghost Tree in the woods like they used to, and, oh yeah, Lauren’s dad was brutally murdered in those same woods a year ago. But her life is about to get a whole lot harder when the dark curse that has a tight hold on their small town of Smith’s Hollow starts to go off the rails and things get even more dangerous and terrifying than they already were.
Henry does an amazing job revealing the dark underbelly of small town life. As someone who grew up in a small town, the world Henry builds is very realistic and all the more terrifying for it. Smith’s Hollow feels so much like my own small home town. The woods we would play in, the rumors about witches and big scary houses, the annual festival and fair days every summer, the relationships you would have with everyone else in town, the politics unique to small town life…but I hope my small town was never in the clutches of a centuries old curse that delivered carnage and terror in exchange for prosperity.
There are many twists and reveals throughout The Ghost Tree that will keep you on your toes. Henry includes a rich mythology, and while there certainly are many moving parts and increased complications in her narrative, she succeeds in keeping a very tight plot. Her writing style is exciting and intimate, making you very invested in the story and characters.
The Ghost Tree felt a bit like Stephen King’s IT in that Lauren is faced with the dark events of her childhood and her coming of age. And the way that hate works as an infection and a tool of dark supernatural forces throughout the town feels a lot like Pennywise to me (in the best way). And I feel I must mention that fans of Stranger Things will surely enjoy this book. This was my first Christina Henry read, and I cannot wait to dig into her other series!
Out 9/8/20. Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group for providing an ARC.
Whether you picked it up just before lockdown or were inspired by real life events to crack open this Stephen King tome, it sure does feel like we’ve all found ourselves reading The Stand during a gosh-darn pandemic! At least, that’s what Bookstagram and several horror podcasts have led me to believe. And I myself am actually working my way through the unabridged edition. I picked it up months before COVID-19 reared its ugly head in my city.
People have had interesting and strong reactions to current events when it comes to content consumption. Some people are understandably terrified enough by life as it is and have no interest in picking up a plague book or pressing play on Contagion or Quarantine. But some of us have been gobbling up plague content like it’s the last Thanksgiving before humanity ceases to exist as we know it! Hello, I am one of those people.
I feel comforted by The Stand in ways I normally feel comforted while reading King, and in some surprising new ways! I love his story and character work, and despite the subject matter of this over 1,400-page book, I find myself getting caught up in the tale. My mind is taken away from the real life horrors outside for a little while. I also have enjoyed saying to myself, “Well, at least that’s not happening…yet.” And that makes me feel better! I clearly am not alone.
So if you’re taking comfort in The Stand right now and want to feel a bit more like part of a community, check out the recent content currently being made that you can enjoy!
Castle Rock Radio Podcast: Hosted by Max Booth III and Lori Michelle, this podcast focuses on the world of King and all he touches. So naturally, they’re reading their way through The Stand! Listen to their recaps mixed in with other regular episodes.
The Company of the Mad, The Stand Podcast: Hosted by Jason Sechrest and featuring author Tananarive Due, director Mike Flanagan, and journalist Anthony Breznican. They’re reading and talking their way through The Stand as a group, throwing their personal expertise into the conversation along the way.
Books in the Freezer Podcast Patreon: Books in the Freezer is a delightful horror book podcast hosted by Stephanie (Htat’s What he Read on Booktube***), and as part of their $5 “Malevolent Spirit” Patreon membership, you can access bonus episodes including a new episode series featuring Stephanie and her husband as they read their way through The Stand.
Have yet to experience the glory that is The Stand? Read or listen along by borrowing an ebook or audiobook copy from your public library via Hoopla, Libby, or whichever lending app they use! Not sure how all that works? Give them a call to ask what’s available to you digitally while their doors are closed due to our own lil pandemic over here. Librarians would be happy to get you started on your King adventure. Join us!
5 Stars. Out 7/14/20. Trigger warnings for body horror, animal killing, gore.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones is a literary horror novel to take all literary horror novels. It’s an open, bleeding heart, beating with the force of broken families, old traditions, and bad decisions made by young men that have the unfortunate power to shape their futures. This book has been described as Peter Straub’s Ghost Storyset on the rez, and it absolutely has that vibe.
A decade ago, four young Blackfeet men decide to hunt where they shouldn’t and kill more than they need. Ten years later, a vengeful spirit rises up to settle the score. The men must face their pasts and their identities in a bloody reckoning. But the spirit won’t stop with them, it must turn to their loved ones as well.
I have never read a more inventive story, which is saying a lot because I’ve said that about at least two other books in 2020 prior to this one. Jones has blended many literary influences, Native cultures and beliefs, and applied unique formatting to The Only Good Indians. Once I began reading it, I could not put it down.
Anyone who reads Stephen Graham Jones knows that his work is so much deeper than just a horror story. Horror has the beauty of speaking real truths when treated correctly, and Jones wields that power often in his novels. Jones’ messaging in The Only Good Indians about tradition, respect, perseverance, resiliency, and family are powerful, as is his heartfelt assertion in the acknowledgments that all Native women should stay alive to thrive and flourish.
The Only Good Indians is bone-chillingly frightening, shockingly thrilling, viciously bloody, and full of an enormous amount of heart. Jones really killed it with this one.
Thank you to Netgalley and Gallery / Saga Press for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
5 Stars.Trigger warnings for self-harm, postpartum depression, suicide, infanticide, family trauma, abuse, untreated mental illness, and probably more I’m not realizing.
Iseult is odd: awkward, nervous, strangely pale, and has a huge scar where here collarbone broke during her delivery, killing her mother. But that’s ok, because her mother now lives in that scar and talks to her, telling her what to do and how to live. In fact, her mother won’t leave her alone! The only thing that calms her mother’s voice and makes Iseult feel normal is cutting.
Iseult’s father keeps trying to marry her off, but she’s a bit of an old maid, not terribly pretty, and says very strange things at the worst times. She has no interest in getting married, but she also has no interest in living with her father either. Iseult’s father is cruel to her and can’t wait to be rid of her. Once it becomes painfully clear that Iseult will never willingly marry and leave his house, he arranges a marriage.
When he introduces Iseult to Jacob, a man with silver skin, it appears that things could maybe change for the better. Jacob is kind to Iseult, and Iseult starts to have hope. But her mother does everything she can to manipulate Iseult in ways that are confusing and selfish. Iseult must battle with herself, her father, and her mother’s voice to try to find happiness.
Most of this book is about Iseult and her mother struggling with each other. It’s full of horrible things happening to Iseult. Lies, betrayals, unnecessary cruelties. It does not end happily, but you do get some closure.
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the most disturbing. There were moments when I had to set it down for a second to catch my breath, but I never wanted to stop reading it. It’s just so good! I think “beautiful nightmare” describes it well. Do not read this book if you have any of the triggers attached below. They are extreme.
The Unsuitable is so beautifully written. It’s upsetting but also exciting and fascinating. You love and care for Iseult, which makes it even harder to read her tragic journey. I will buy anything Molly Pohlig writes in the future.
The Unsuitable was published 4/14/2020. Thank you to Henry Holt & Co. and Netgalley for providing an ARC. Review originally posted to @jocelyn73c Bookstagram account.
5 Stars.Out 3/24/20. Trigger warnings for eating disorders, body horror.
Elise’s best friend Julie was missing for two years. Their friends Molly and Mae were certain she was dead. They had a funeral for her. And then Julie came back with no memory of the time she was gone.
Trying to get life back to normal, the four women decide to go on a girls trip to a trippy boutique hotel in the Catskills. But when they all get there and see Julie for the first time since her return, they realize something is very very wrong. And yet, no one can bring themselves to talk to Julie about it, not even Elise. Not until it’s too late.
The Return by Rachel Harrison is an amazing book, scary and thrilling with well crafted characters. Harrison blends absolute terror with humor and humanity. There are well-placed moments of levity, and even the most frightful scenes are injected with meaning beyond just a good scare.
This book an excellent examination of female friendship, especially with groups of women who have known each other for a long time–the history you bring up and the history you agree to forget; the wrongs done to each other that can build up; the resentment, the judgement, but also the deep love. What do you owe your closest friends? What do they owe you? What does it mean to really be there for each other? While this is obviously a horror novel and exists in the realm of the fantastic, it is very likely you have been in Elise’s situation before…trying to figure out how to help an old friend who is clearly having problems and could use support, but perhaps the baggage between the two of you is getting in the way.
In asking these questions and tackling these problems, The Return does that thing that I love best about horror, which is shine a light on real life struggles. I really loved The Return and recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about female friendship, the movie Jennifer’s Body, and/or folk horror (yup, there’s a bit of that in there).
Thank you to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing Group for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
This is a nasty little book, brutal and beautiful. To call it simply atmospheric would be doing it a great disservice. Jennifer Giesbrecht’s debut novella The Monster of Elendhaven is absolutely phenomenal. In a short 160 pages, Giesbrecht paints a world of cold, dark filth. It drips with pain and sorrow. The characters are wretched but fascinating and fully developed. I use these descriptors not as a way to dissuade you in reading it, but to let you know what arena you’d be playing in. The characters are wretched, yes, but you love to follow them in their dastardly plots. The setting is stark and harsh, but you will not be able to look away. And while the story is creepy and gory, it has moments of true tenderness and humor.
In The Monster of Elendhaven, a superhuman man named Johann stalks the dark and seedy streets of Elendhaven, acting as the city’s own Jack the Ripper of sorts. There’s something unique about Johann though: it appears he can’t be killed. He’s tried. Multiple times. When he encounters Florian, a man from one of Elendhaven’s oldest families, he sees a kindred spirit. Soon they team up, Johann acting as the strong arm for Florian’s dark revenge fantasies. But even the best laid of evil plans can experience some hiccups. Someone is hunting Florian, and they mean to kill.
Magic plays a huge role in this book, but it’s the kind of magic that you need to look at out of the corner of your eye. Sorcerers and magic used to fill the world, but as time passed it became dangerous to be a sorcerer. It was punished, shunned, and bred out of society…but not entirely. Elendhaven, being a fantasy mirror of a Germanic/Nordic country, has old magic and old lore that does not forget the truth behind the universe. It is a place where fantastical things can still happen. I love settings like this, that exist in the spaces between the modern mundane world and an older magical world.
What Giesbrecht does in such a short space is so impressive. She gives us a fully realized story, equipped with rich characters, a visceral setting, a deep mythology, and a satisfying end. And while we only get a fragment of the lore this world contains, it is robust and offers the appropriate support to the tale at hand. I could read a whole series based on these characters or set in Elendhaven or its surroundings.
The Monster of Elendhaven is like if Tim Burton and Rob Zombie collaborated on a film together. It’s a Dickensian tale on crystal meth. It will chill you to your core but leave you wanting more. I wait in eager anticipation for whatever Giesbrecht publishes next!
I grew up on a lake. My grandparents had an adorable lake house on one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York very close to the small town I grew up in. We spent most of our summer days making the quick drive to their house and enjoying the fresh, cool water, the slight breeze, the gorgeous and magical woods, and the secret worlds we created. There were caves, waterfalls, glens, clearings, fields of wild flowers, and of course the lake itself. We learned how to swim and sail on that lake, and spent countless hours sunbathing on the dock and telling ghost stories around the fire on the beach. Our favorites were about the ancient monsters that lived at the bottom of the deep Finger Lakes, which were formed by glaciers making giant cuts in the land thousands of years ago.
Lake houses mean true peace, serenity, and happiness to me, so this book hit me like a ton of bricks. I was always on the look-out for ghosts in and around my grandparents’ lake house, but Scott Thomas’ Violethas made me grateful I never found them!
After Kris’ husband is killed in a crash, Kris takes her young daughter Sadie to her family’s lake house on Lost Lake in Pacington Kansas to get away from the memories and the prying eyes of family for the summer. Kris hasn’t been back to the lake house in thirty years, since she was a child herself. Her memories of the place are happy and full of joy, and she thinks the house could help her and her daughter handle the grief of suddenly losing her husband. The issue (one of many, as it turns out) is that the lake house hasn’t been touched in years. It has been neglected and is now overgrown and even rotting in some places. And it becomes very clear early on that the state of the lake house mirrors the state of Kris’ soul, and just like with her own trauma, Kris assumes she can just slap a coat of paint over it and it will get better.
Not long after Kris and Sadie reach the house, Sadie starts to act very peculiar. Her behavior becomes increasingly erratic. As Kris struggles to decipher what is happening to her daughter, she begins to uncover dark truths about her own past and the history of her family’s lake house that she repressed for years. There was a reason her father never took her back after the summer of 1988, after her mother died. There was a reason why everyone who tried to rent the place for the summer always asked to switch to a different house. There was a reason her father wanted to let the house rot after his own death. And now Kris has to face this truth head on to save her daughter and herself.
I know this summary makes Violet sound like one big metaphor for past repressed trauma, and it is, but don’t worry…it’s full of terrifying paranormal shit too. There were moments during this book that had me on the edge of my seat with my hair standing on end. It truly terrified me. I really enjoyed Thomas’ use of the paranormal concept of tulpas, which is criminally underutilized in my opinion. But as a metaphor for how we manage past and present family trauma, Violet works wonderfully! As my father-in-law says, if you keep sweeping shit under the rug, one day you’re going to trip over that rug.
Thomas’ writing is cinematic and sweeping. He takes his time with descriptions and really lets you sink into a scene. He reminds me of Stephen King in that way. I felt that Violet showed a lot of similarities to Pet Sematary in particular, especially concerning the questions of family, death, and the limits (or lack thereof) of grief. Good horror addresses the nasty truths of life. Thomas has done that here, and he has beautifully crafted a story that all readers can relate to whether they believe in ghosts and tulpas or not.
Throughout the book, music is successfully used to usher in both the beauty of the past and the pain. My lake house memories also have a soundtrack that feels like warm summers, cookouts, laughter, and family. If those songs were suddenly perverted to work directly against those associations, I’d probably lose my mind. This is exactly what Thomas does to Kris, and I loved it. I have to tip my hat to anyone genius enough to transforming “Blackbird” by the Beatles into one of the most horrifying songs in the world. From now on, every time I hear a college dude with an acoustic guitar clumsily strumming that melody on the quad of the campus I work on, I will have to replace my eye roll with a shudder of pure terror!
“Blackbird” aside, I would like to request that someone make a Spotify playlist with all the titles mentioned throughout the book, because they are some of my favorite songs of all time. Whoops, looks like I did that myself.
There are monsters in the world, unspeakable evils that rob us of that which is most precious to us. Life can break your heart and rip you apart, but Noah Turner has more to contend with than the familiar horrors of human existence. Noah can see monsters, like real monsters. Big harry creatures. And they can see him too.
Shaun Hamill’s A Cosmology of Monsters is an incredibly touching story about the Turner family. What starts off as a cute love story quickly turns to sorrow as Harry and Margaret Turner and their three children face tragedy after tragedy over the years. But in the midst of their struggles (struggles that many of us would recognize and be acquainted with), a fantastical element rears it’s furry, sharp-toothed head. A true monster has had its sights on the Turner family for decades, and Noah, the youngest, decides to let it into his home, his family, and his heart. What Noah doesn’t know is that his father also saw monsters, and his mother knew something was wrong.
I knew from the cover art that this was a book I needed to pick up. Once I read the synopsis I was hooked, and I couldn’t put it down. This stunning literary horror debut hit me in all the right places. I was up way past lights out flipping the pages, fully invested in the Turner family’s story and the monster(s) that haven’t stopped haunting them for generations. I couldn’t get enough of the throwback 80s/90s vibes mixed with Lovecraftian horror! Despite it being a horror/fantasy novel, I found it oddly relatable.
Not only did Hamill tell an amazing and spooky tale, but he successfully created a cross-genre masterpiece. When people think of horror, their minds usually go to slashers or haunted houses. It is actually an incredibly rich and diverse genre with a little something for everyone. The beauty of horror is that it can act as an incredibly effective mirror to society. The really timeless horror writers recognize this and build their spine-tingling tales on elements rooted in real life.
Good horror is like a good lie, there’s a lot of truth mixed in with the rest. In A Cosmology of Monsters, I would say that truth element is generational trauma. The Turner family faces a lot of hardship, but their biggest struggle is one of communication and forgiveness. It’s a story of regret, reconciliation, and family healing. But don’t get me wrong, it’s also about big scary monsters and a hidden inter-dimensional city hungry for your soul. Don’t worry, there are true horror elements wrapped up in the interpersonal family drama. Hamill’s writing is so beautifully descriptive that it will make you cry and shiver in equal measure.
A Cosmology of Monsters has absolutely landed itself on my favorites of 2019 list. If you enjoy family sagas, literary fiction, horror, or science fiction I highly recommend this debut novel by Hamill. I definitely recommend it if you are a fan of the TV shows Stranger Things and This Is Us (weird, I know). I would also compare A Cosmology of Monsters to Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, both pulling on Lovecraftian elements and involving family stories over generations.